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They roam the streets after that. The town, all prettied up for the upcoming celebration of Mid-fall, isn’t in any hurry to go to sleep. Anya keeps her head and her hood low, so her face is obscured by the deep shadow, and the passersby sometimes look at her, trying inadvertently to catch a glimpse of her features.

“When my face is hidden like this,” she admits, “I like to pretend I’m pretty underneath this hood. And for a moment, for all those people, who can’t see me… I am.”

They stop at the florist’s shop window. It’s lit with candles and framed with garlands of golden berries. There are a few bouquet arrangements on display—bright yellow tulips, vibrant orange daisies, dark red orchids, and red roses. The prettiest colors of the autumn picked and gathered together in tiny round weaved baskets, embroidered with glass beads and silk ribbons and ornamental buttons.

“They look like they don’t belong to this world,” Anya says. “It seems they come from another realm, where there is nothing but beauty.”

I never liked flowers. Too ephemeral, they don’t last. Especially when they are cut from the ground and assembled into overpriced bouquets. But Anya takes their beauty in as if she is a traveler dying of thirst and they are a cool spring in the middle of a desert.

Mid-fall isn’t as cheerful as Spring-come. Rather it’s more… mysterious. It’s like magic is waking up in the shadows. Our mother used to bake a pie with wild strawberries, always cutting a piece to put on Mother Earth’s altar—the goddess we shared with the Steppe-folk. Nora and I decorated the house with rowanberries. And we always got new dresses on that day, too: a darker one for me, a lighter one for her. Mother never dressed us the same, not wanting, perhaps, to draw even more attention to our extraordinary resemblance.

Jaro is happy. I can hear the wild rhythm of his heartbeat. For the first time, Anya doesn’t seem cold and distant, and they’ve been talking for hours. He asks questions and she answers them keenly.

“A match made in heaven,” I remark dryly, but he waves me away, so I spread my wings and fly circles around them, playing with the wind and allowing it to carry my weightless body. I try not to get too far though, just so that I can still catch snippets of their conversation.

“Your scar… Has… has your uncle done that to you?”

“Oh, no! Why would he?” she laughs at the idea. “If anything, my scar is to blame for all my misfortune. If I were pretty—or even not ugly – he would’ve married me off to some merchant and that would’ve brought him some gain. I was but a baby, when I burned myself, very badly. I barely survived. Maybe it would’ve been better if I didn’t, but it is what it is.”

She speaks of it lightly, as if it’s nothing at all. There is no bitterness in her voice, but maybe a little regret and sadness. But Jaro’s jaw tightens in anger.

“You shouldn’t say that!” he protests.

Anya regards him calmly.

“Don’t worry. It doesn’t trouble me anymore. You don’t have to say anything to make me feel better about myself. I’m not blind and I’m no fool.”

Heat colors Jaro’s cheeks red, and he lowers his gaze. He is silent for a minute, but then bursts again, “Did you really steal from him?”

“Yes,” she says after the briefest pause. “Does that make me a horrible person?”

“I don’t know. But your uncle nearly killed you for that.”

“He wouldn’t have. He has a temper, that’s all. And I think I was deliberately provoking him. I told him I spent the money I stole on sweets. Can you imagine that? Spending—what?—thirteen pieces on sweets! And still, he believed me! That’s how stupid he thinks I am!”

“You didn’t spend it then?”

“Well, I did, some of it. A few necessities. But everything else I stashed. I always do that.”

“So you’ve done that before?”

“A couple of times.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding in the back of my uncle’s wagon, that’s why. And he’s never gonna let me go of his own accord.”

“So you want to run away.”

She doesn’t say anything to that, but there’s a gleam in her eyes, that says yes, she wants that, more than anything.

“And what of you?” she asks. “What are you going to do after the job’s done?”

“I have things I need to take care of. That’s why I’m going to the Steppe.”

“It must be very important to you. You have to be desperate to join our hunting party.”

“Why is that?”

“You just don’t seem like the hunting type.”

“Well, I’ve never hunted before.”

“You’re in for some eye-opening experiences then,” she mutters. “What do you seek in the Steppe? Tell me it’s not some treasure rubbish? Because that’s just…”

“No, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

“I need to help a friend.”

She keeps quiet for a few moments, and then she lifts her head and looks him in the eye.

“Take me with you,” she says.

“What?”

“Take. Me. With. You. Are you deaf?”

“It’s not possible.”

“I can help you. I know a thing or two about the Steppe. More than a city boy does, anyway. And I have some money so it’s not like you’re gonna have to take care of me.”

“It’s not that. Anya, it’s dangerous.”

“Please! I’ve been going on hunting expeditions with my uncle since I was ten. I know danger better than you do.”

“It’s a family matter. I can’t involve you.”

“You said it was about a friend.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Yes, that’s what people say when they lie. Alright, forget I said anything.”

She starts walking away, and Jaro chases after her.

“I… can’t tell you. I’m sorry. Even if I did, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

“You’d be surprised at my ability to believe in things.”

“Would you believe me if I said my friend was a ghost and I’m on a mission to help her move on?”

He laughs as if it’s a joke, as if he’s just being silly, but Anya stops suddenly and turns to face him.

“Really?”

She is deadly serious, too, and I perch on Jaro’s shoulder, curious.

Jaro is silent.

“I feel her,” Anya says after a long pause. “I’ve felt her ever since you’ve joined us. I didn’t know what she was, but I feel her, always.”

“You… do?”

She nods.

“I don’t know how and why, but yes! I do, Jaro.”

That’s… unexpected. I remember how she looked up suddenly when I got closer to her. It was like she’d heard me approach. Maybe she has the same gift as Jaro—to an extent at least.

Tentatively, Anya reaches out with her hand. She can’t see me, it’s quite obvious, but she guessed I was near, so I fly up to her and perch right on her open palm.

The girl gasps and almost pulls her hand away, but then she lets out a short laugh.

“I can feel her.”

“I can’t believe it!” Jaro shakes his head. “I’ve never met another person who could communicate with her. You must really be a witch.”

“No, I’m not,” Anya smiles. “It feels like… It’s like the Steppe. It’s the same feeling you get when you touch the Steppe.”

Neither of us understands what she means by that, but we don’t ask.

It’s almost morning. Whether we want it or not, we must go back.

And face Steel’s wrath.

*

“What if he’s gonna be angry?” I ask for the hundredth time, as we make our way to the hotel Grand.

“Oh he’s most definitely going to be angry,” Jaro says. “But I don’t think we have any choice. I’ve lost all my money yesterday, and my bag and my weapons are still in Steel’s keep.”

“We’re screwed,” I say, “He’s gonna kill you the moment you show up, isn’t he?”

“We’ll have to take our chances. I’m not leaving grandfather’s rifle with that man.”

But surprisingly, Steel doesn’t seem very angry. When we enter the inn, he is crouching near the fireplace and it looks like it was him who’s been beaten, not his niece.

Anya slips past him without a word and runs upstairs, but Jaro lingers in the doorway, gathering his courage before joining the merchant. Rather cautiously he takes the empty seat on the opposite side of the table.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but I had to intervene.”

Steel shakes his head.

“You’ve some nerve showing up here after what happened, boy. Maybe you do belong with our merry company after all.”

“You’re not kicking me out?”

“Beggars can hardly be choosers. I take all the help I can get these days,” he sighs. “I’m a businessman, boy. You wanna stay with us, be my guest. But I’m going to take the money she stole from your payment.”

Jaro pauses for a few heartbeats, then nods.

“Alright, deal.”

Steel shoots him a curious look.

“Good. But it does make me wonder…”

He pauses, taking a sip of his morning tea.

“It makes me wonder about this business of yours. Tell me, lad, where are you headed? And what is so important there for you so you are willing to continue no matter what.”

Jaro bites his tongue and stays silent.

“Well,” Steel says scratching at his chin. “Look, kid, it’s not my way of getting into other people’s business but I feel I must tell you this. The Steppe isn’t a place for city boys. You wander there all by yourself, you ain’t getting out alive, that’s for sure.”

Jaro says nothing, but his jaw is set and Steel nods a little, watching him.

“You’re a good lad. I can see that much. Decent. So take my advice. Turn back now. I’m even going to pay you enough to get a ride home.”

“It’s a kind offer, sir, but I… can’t. My friend… I have to help her.”

“Her?” Steel lets out a sigh. “A girl then? Well, in that case, I’m just wasting my time, am I not?”

“Umm… no, not exactly a girl. It’s a long story.”

Steel raises his eyebrows but lets that one slide.

“Let me tell you a story then. I doubt it will make you change your mind, but it might make you a little more careful.”

“Oh… All right.”

Jaro loves stories. Even now, in the company of a man he doesn’t like, he can’t turn away a chance to listen to one.

“It happened to one of my dear friends, so I assure you the story is true.”

And this is the thing with all the tall tales—they always start the same way: “I know this is hard to believe, but it happened to my dear friend (or a close relative, or a person who would never ever lie, and who is, of course, absolutely sane)”.

But who am I to judge really?

Anyway, back to Steel:

“My friend was hired as a guard by a rich man to escort a caravan that had to deliver his wife and a few other family members to a wedding that took place on the other side of the Steppe. The route was dangerous, and the caravan needed heavy protection, as it was carrying gifts for the newlyweds—gold and silver, gems and pearls. It was a desired prey for the outlaw bands that dwelled in the wilderness.

My friend took the job eagerly. A Listerian, he was used to the dangers of the long routes, and neither bandits nor harsh conditions of the wastelands scared him.

The caravan departed in the morning, on the first day of Bloomer, and they were going day and night, without rest, without stopping. And by the end of the third day of their travel, they came upon a different caravan. This one was abandoned. The carts and wagons were upturned, the canvas ripped, the wares scattered. And there were lifeless bodies everywhere—judging by the wounds, they were killed by some wild animal… or rather a pack of wild animals.

My friend is not “a-faint-of-heart”. He has seen things, done things… But the sight of that butchery drained the color from his face. He and the other mercenaries searched the wreckage, looking for survivors. My friend urged the guards to hurry. The smell of spilled blood suggested that the slaughter happened only a short time ago, so whoever or whatever did this, might still be nearby. But as they searched, the wonders of the abandoned caravan made them forget about everything in the world—their duty, their destination, and even the danger.

The unlucky caravan was transporting some valuable and exotic goods. There were pearls the size of a grown man’s fist. There were silks painted in the rarest colors. There were statuettes made of pure gold. And in one of the wagons, there was an empty cage, made of some unknown shining metal, encrusted with gems.

The cage caught my friend’s interest, so he started looking for the key to match its lock and found it in the rubble—they key was as peculiar as the cage itself, made of that same metal, and my friend put it into his pocket. He’d been meaning to show it to a blacksmith and learn the name of the metal.

Very soon the mercenaries noticed something rather unsettling about the whole scene. The corpses that scattered the ground around the caravan did not belong to merchants. They were dressed in black and grey and they wore black scarves on their heads. My friend identified them as members of the infamous Clan.

But if the Clan attacked the caravan and a battle ensued, then where were the bodies of the merchants?

There was no one alive to tell the story of what had happened, and the truth, it appeared, was to be buried forever in the wilderness of the Great Steppe. However, it seemed a waste to leave treasures lying around. So the travelers and their guards started to rummage through the wagons, filling their pockets with coins and precious stones.

And as they were doing so, the night fell.

It began with a deafening howl. The ground shook. The wind blew. And creatures, made of nothing but darkness, were suddenly upon them. The gems and the coins turned into red clay. The wagons that looked brand new in the evening light now were nothing but old wooden carcasses. Only the corpses remained the same—a grim promise of what awaited the unfortunate travelers.

The creatures were so fast it was impossible to see any details. The only thing my friend remembered was their claws—sharp and fast and deadly. They hacked and slashed and spilled blood. My friend survived by a miracle. His fingers found the key in his pocket, and so he ran and locked himself in the cage made of that strange metal, and that way he lasted through the night. When the day came, the creatures vanished, leaving new corpses behind.

My friend was the only survivor.

He continued his journey, shaken, barely understanding what had happened and where he was going. And on his way through the wilderness, he came across a dying man. He wore the attire of the Clan and he had a foul deep cut across his stomach.

He told my friend what had happened to him and his fellow men. They saw an abandoned caravan full of treasures, and then were attacked by fearsome creatures…’

Steel falls silent.

Jaro doesn’t even seem to breathe.

“I saw him after his return,” Steel shakes his head. “And he was not the same man I remembered. Every person who comes this close to creatures of the Steppe is marked for life. And he came too close.”

“I’m sure it all can be explained.”

“Oh yes? How? That my friend was drunk and mistook wreckage for treasures and some wild animals for monsters? No, boy. There's evil lurking in that place—demons weaving attractive illusions to lure a careless prey.”

“Illusions…” repeats Jaro pensively. “Thank you for the warning, master Steel. I will be careful of any illusions.”

“Bah! And how will you know the difference between what’s real and what’s not, pray tell!”

“I will walk away from anything that is too good to be true, then,” Jaro smiles. “And if I forget I hope my guardian angel will be there to remind me of that.”

Steel nods gravely.

“Well, I did not expect the story would be enough to change your mind. Let’s hope your guardian angel is smart enough to see the danger in time then.”

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Asa Artair

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